A Century of Swing
The Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
in Sterling Memorial Library
120 High Street
In 2009 we mark the centenary of Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing” and a central figure in the history of jazz. Born into a poor immigrant family in Chicago on May 30, 1909, Goodman took his first clarinet lessons at a local synagogue, and later studied with Franz Schoepp. His exceptional talent was soon evident, and he began performing professionally at the tender age of twelve. From 1925 to 1929 he played in Ben Pollack’s band, an ensemble that also included Goodman’s brother Harry, as well as the young Glenn Miller. He worked as a free-lance musician, chiefly in New York, from 1929 to 1934.
In 1934 Goodman established his own big band, and became a leader in the new style known as “Swing.” Thanks to his virtuosity on the clarinet and the precision and energy of his band, Goodman helped make Swing the dominant form of jazz, and he soon established himself as its undisputed king. A series of impressive performances at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, the Congress Hotel in Chicago, and the Paramount Theater in New York, as well as on radio, disc, and film, made Goodman the most popular musician in America, and perhaps the entire world.
Despite jazz’s broad appeal, many important figures in the musical establishment had long dismissed it as, at best, mere light entertainment. Jazz was welcome in nightclubs or hotel ballrooms, but the doors of most major concert halls remained closed to it. Goodman’s famous performance at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938 consequently represented a stunning breakthrough, and a sign that the barriers between popular and classical music were falling.
This was not the only barrier Goodman helped overcome. Before him, jazz bands were customarily segregated by race. Goodman’s band was all white at first, but in 1935 he broke the color line by playing with the great black pianist Teddy Wilson. Initially they performed together only in trios or quartets (usually with drummer Gene Krupa, who was white, and sometimes with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who was black), but eventually Wilson and Hampton became full-fledged members of Goodman’s band, and they were followed by other notable black musicians, including guitarist Charlie Christian. Racial integration was controversial in the 1930s, but Goodman’s enormous popularity gave him the clout to make it happen despite opposition.
In 1942, Goodman married Alice Hammond Duckworth, the sister of the legendary record producer John Hammond. They had two daughters, Rachel and Benjie. (Alice also had three daughters from her previous marriage.)
By the late 1940s, fashions had changed, and the Swing Era gave way first to Bop, and then to a variety of other musical styles. Goodman occasionally experimented with these styles, but for the next four decades he remained the King of Swing, as he continued to bring his brand of music to large and loyal audiences around the world with concert tours, radio and television appearances, and recordings. Two of Goodman’s tours were organized by the U.S. State Department: in 1956-57, Goodman and his band visited East Asia, and in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, they performed for thousands of enthusiastic jazz fans in the Soviet Union.
Although he specialized in jazz, Goodman also performed and recorded clarinet pieces by the likes of Mozart, Weber, and Brahms with leading orchestras and chamber musicians. He greatly enriched the clarinet repertoire by commissioning major works from Bela Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, and others.
Although Goodman did not attend Yale, he had ties to the University; he performed on campus, he sometimes consulted Keith Wilson (professor of clarinet at the Yale School of Music) for advice on his classical performances, and in 1982 he received an honorary doctorate. Goodman died in New York on June 13, 1986. He left Yale his papers, including more than 1500 big band arrangements (by Fletcher Henderson, Eddie Sauter, Mel Powell, and many other arrangers), thousands of photographs, and a wide range of other materials. Scholars and musicians from around the world regularly study the Benny Goodman Papers, which rank among the most heavily used of the Gilmore Music Library’s archival collections.
—Richard Boursy, Archivist